I was aware of the Harrison Legend: the films made from his work, the friendship with Jack Nicholson, the incomp -rehensible appetite (he once ate a 37-course lunch and lived to write about it).
Before I left him, Harrison wanted to take me for a drive down the road, toward the foothills of the Rockies. “What are these hills here?” I asked, motioning out the window.
“What do you mean?”
“What are they called?”
“They don’t call ’em anything.”
How about those bushes? “Juniper,” he said, and pointed up along the hills’ escarpment. “See those rock formations? Full of rodentia. And rattlers.” We circled back to his house and saw, in quick succession, a yellow-rumped warbler and a western tanager, Harrison’s first of the season. A deer ran alongside the truck, and I asked Harrison why the deer in Montana looked different from the deer in Michigan. That was a mule deer, he said. Dumber, lower, mangier, and grayer than Michigan’s whitetails. We passed the big pink tree that grew next to his driveway’s entrance. What’s that called? “Ornamental crab apple,” he said.
We came back to the house, and Harrison wanted to know if I was going to continue teaching, which, I had told him the day before, was cannibalizing my writing time. Over the years, Harrison had been offered several “really cushy jobs” by various creative- writing departments. “And I said, ‘Why me?’ And they said, ‘We need some kind of name.’ However minimal.” But he always said no, thank you. “I turned one down for $75,000 in a year that we made $9,000.”
When I asked how he had been able to do that, Harrison told me what he told them: “‘Somebody’s got to stay outside,’ ” he said. “And I still think that’s true. Somebody’s got to stay outside.”
BEFORE LEAVING Montana, I decided to drive through Yellowstone Park. I was listening to conservative talk radio, the voices shrill and formless in my rental, beneath the mountain cathedrals. While Sean Hannity spent an hour rhetorically decapitating President Obama, I looked at the landscape, feeling the pressure between Americans and America, between body and being, between reality and aspiration. I wound up at Old Faithful, which Harrison said had been weakened in recent years; it might not even blow, he warned me. I wanted to see it blow. Maybe that would relieve the pressure. After an hour, it had not blown, and I had to catch a plane home. I knew by then I would be quitting my teaching job. It felt too good to be outside.